Virginia universities, school systems, working to address teacher shortages

Dr. Cyndy Unwin is a reading specialist at Roanoke Catholic who spent years in the public school system.
Dr. Cyndy Unwin is a reading specialist at Roanoke Catholic who spent years in the public school system. (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

ROANOKE (WSLS 10) - A teacher crisis could be coming as soon as 2020, according to some education industry leaders.

Governor Terry McAuliffe has highlighted the importance of education, preparing students for jobs in Virginia and keeping those students here when they graduate. But recruiting and retaining teachers is becoming a big problem in the commonwealth and across the country.

"I think what has become increasingly difficult is identifying teacher candidates. For the first time, it's been more difficult to staff our elementary positions. In the past, we would probably have three to four applicants for every vacancy and I really noticed a change in that this year," said Sandra Burks, the Roanoke City Schools executive director for human resources.

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"I'm not one of those people that always grew up and knew I wanted to teach," said Katie Church, who is now teaching in a Chatham High School math class without even finishing her education degree. "Definitely didn't know what to expect coming in and having zero education background, but I enjoy it."

Liberty University works with school systems to fill gaps.
Liberty University works with school systems to fill gaps.

Because Pittsylvania County Schools needed teachers, Church was hired full-time while still wrapping up her education degree at Liberty University.

"We want to continue to streamline ways to make teaching easier," said Dr. Michelle Goodwin, Liberty University Senior Assistant Dean in the School of Education, who oversees the teacher licensing program at Liberty. "We get calls, we get emails from the school saying we need a teacher in this specific area, we need help in the specific area."

The Learning Policy Institute, a group that conducts research to improve education policy and research says 3 million teachers serve more than 50 million students across the country.

Without enough teachers there are real implications.


"They increase class sizes, they put teachers in areas that they're not licensed to do," said Goodwin.

Virginia has seen the same top five critical shortages for the past five years: Special Education, Elementary Education (K-6), Middle Education Grade (6-8), Career and Technical Education and Math Grades 6-12 (including Algebra I).

The Learning Policy Institute says there are several factors driving the shortages:

  • Districts trying to decrease class sizes
  • Increasing student enrollment
  • Teachers leaving before retirement age (For reasons like burnout, pay or satisfaction levels)

But teachers WSLS 10 talked with said the pressures of SOLs are also a big factor.

Radford University works with school systems to fill gaps.
Radford University works with school systems to fill gaps.

"Any kind of teaching is one of the most intense professional challenges that a person can face," said Dr. Cyndy Unwin, Roanoke Catholic Reading Specialist who spent 31 years teaching across the country, most in public schools where she estimates about a third of her time was spent testing. "It just seemed like I wasn't a teacher anymore, I was a tester."

Teachers like Unwin are leaving school systems, switching careers or starting families.

"It's like why should I do this when I don't get paid well enough first of all and when I have gone through four years of college and I am a professional and I have been trained to do what it is I'm supposed to be doing and yet I'm not trusted enough to make my own decisions in my own classroom," said Dr. Unwin.

But the problem runs deeper than teachers leaving.

Teaching programs, like the well-known Radford University College of Education, are seeing a drop in students wanting to be teachers. Dr. Kenna Colley is the Dean. She said there are a lot of hoops for people to go through just to get into teaching, with pressure to pass tests and the expense of getting a degree.

"I think we need to provide more incentives for people to go into teacher education, forgiving some loans if they pay back that time, more scholarships for teachers," said Colley.

Local schools have been trying to increase teacher pay to remain competitive. Roanoke City, along with other schools across Virginia, started Teachers for Tomorrow programs getting high school juniors and seniors the beginning lessons in teaching before they go to college.

What's the ultimate answer? Everyone agrees it's going to take collaboration and maybe some creativity to get students into teaching and retain teachers in the classroom.

"There are things that people are doing to hopefully turn the wave around to get going into teacher education but some of them are Band-Aids and some of them we don't know are sustainable," said Colley.

"The United States, sometimes, we have to be in a crisis before we make a change and I think that may end up being what happens," said Unwin.

Meanwhile, new teachers like Katie Church are holding onto the little moments that make a big difference.

"Helping students, helping people have a breakthrough, anything like that at the end of the day that's what it's about," said Church.

While there is no one solution everyone agrees teacher shortages need to be addressed now. Superintendents meet with colleges on a regular basis keeping the lines of communication open and brainstorming ideas to make sure students have enough attention in the classroom for years to come.

Colleges are offering special scholarships to bring in students to fill critical shortages. If applying to teach, ask for what the school is offering that may lower your tuition.